We did not arrive here by accident. Make no mistake about it, the mess that is the world was created by our own actions, rooted in our beliefs and values, shaped by the way we think about who we are and how we ought to relate to others. If our misogyny allows us to perpetuate a rape culture, if our suspicion – if not outright hatred – of anyone Other breeds racism and discrimination, if our fear of sexuality permits us to ostracise the LGTBI community, then it is allowed to do so because our God endorses it. We find justification for our cruelty and hatred in the fact that it is divinely sanctioned. Brexit, Trump, and Apartheid are not aberrations in our history, they are the natural consequences of theologies that authorise violence. We did not arrive here by accident.
And one of the chief culprits is the Bible. More specifically, the way that we read the Bible. The line of thinking that has dominated Western Christian thought regarding the Bible since the Reformation has been that it is the inerrant or infallible Word of God. This belief has necessitated that we find one voice – the voice of God – in the Scriptures, that we find ways to make each verse agree with every other verse, else we find ourselves with the problem of a God with a severe mental disorder, vacillating between complete love and retributive wrath. We have had to manufacture ways to make the disparate voices agree. And, frankly, we have failed. People who might otherwise have come to understand just how much God loves them, have been turned away because of our dogged determination to defend a morally reprehensible picture of God. Rightly so. And it is time we owned up to our mistake. It is time that we faced up to the consequences of our idolatrous beliefs surrounding the Bible.
It is easy to spout vitriolic condemnation of the gay community when throughout the Old Testament, God is commanding genocide, wiping out the Amalekites, the Midianites, the Amorites and any other –ites unfortunate enough to stand in the way of God’s chosen people. When the Old Testament writers gleefully advocate taking the infants of the enemy and smashing their heads against rocks, when the conquering Israelites take the enemy virgins as spoils of war, then it seems relatively minor to justify women and child abuse. When God is raining fire and brimstone on entire cities because they would not believe, it is easy to defend colonialism – the violent extermination of entire cultures in the name of Christianising them. But I don’t believe that any of this is what God wants. And that is why I am opposed to a Bible-centred theology. No good can – indeed has – come from that. Because the Bible, all too frequently, glorifies violence. You can cloak it in all the apologetics you want, but that is the bottom line: The Bible is a book of blood.
A Jesus-centred theology, now that is a different thing altogether. I can get behind that. But I don’t believe that you can have a theology that is both Bible-centred and Christ-centred. You have to choose. Jesus completely eschews violence; both in his conduct and in his teachings, the emphasis is consistently on restoration of relationships, on forgiveness, on creatively solving conflict in peaceful ways. The Bible, on the other hand, no matter how you may try to justify it, does not. And unless God is two-faced and mentally unstable, both cannot be God’s revelation of His divine nature. God cannot be simultaneously violent and opposed to violence. Can you honestly say you can picture Jesus commanding genocide; exhorting his followers to destroy entire cultures, wiping out every man, woman and child, and – in some cases – even the livestock? Not if you have understood what he stood for in any even rudimentary way. Not if you can recall how he treated the woman caught in adultery, the stories he told about the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan, the inordinate amount of time (as far as the Pharisees were concerned, anyway) that he spent in the company of prostitutes and tax-collectors. Not if you study how he handled his arrest, trial and crucifixion. Even his enemies knew him as an advocate of peace (Luke 22:52-53). The question, then, is: which of these ought we to use as a framework on which to build our theologies? Do you choose to believe Jesus when he claimed that if we have seen him, we have seen the Father (John 14:9), or do you cling to a 16th Century doctrine of the infallibility of the Bible?
I am not dismissing the Bible. I am asking you to think about it differently, to be willing to see it through the eyes of Jesus, not of Reformer theologians; to see that it does not speak with one monolithic voice, but outlines a debate about the nature of God that spans millennia. It juxtaposes priestly voices that insist that God requires sacrifice to be appeased (most of Leviticus, for example), with prophetic voices that insist that those sacrifices are not only meaningless, but abhorrent to God (Hosea 6:6; Psalm 40:6-8; Jeremiah 7: 22-23; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6: 6-8; Matthew 9:13); it invites you into the fierce conflict between Paul’s theology (outlined in his letters and in the gospels) and the theology of the Jerusalem church (in Peter’s letters and in the book of James), which is documented in Acts 15 and 21, and in Galatians 2. By no stretch of the imagination does the Bible promote only one theology. It is a debate, and one that does not ask you to agree with all perspectives, but asks you to take sides. To insist that the books of the Bible speak with one voice is to misunderstand and completely disregard the sharp points of disagreement in their ways of understanding God, and to hugely diminish and problematise our own understanding of God as a result.
So where does Jesus stand? Which side does he pick? Throughout his ministry, when Jesus quotes the Scriptures, he frequently emphasises the gracious and non-retributive nature of God, either by omitting the retributive parts of the Scripture altogether, or by adding to the Scriptures. He certainly does not treat them like the infallible and inerrant revelation of God’s will to humanity. That was a human addition, and an unhelpful one at that. If you don’t believe me, go and look at all the times that Jesus quotes Scripture. Also look up the original Scriptures he quotes from. Notice what he emphasises, what he adds and what he leaves out. Think about what the implications are of the fact that he feels the freedom to do that at all.
And once you have let go of the Bible idol, you will begin to see the cross differently. You will see that the story of the cross is not one of God rejecting Jesus because of our sin, and punishing him instead of us. Sin is a disease, and no disease can be cured by punishing it out of the afflicted. Sin requires a doctor, not a judge. The problem with sin was never that we were naughty and needed to be punished. It was that sin robbed us of life, trapped us in an endless cycle of blood and death, rendered us incapable of interacting properly with God because we could never do so without fear and blood, without being so focused on our own inadequacy that we lost sight of His all-sufficiency and love. At the cross, we see how God wishes it all to end: not with retribution and punishment, not with fire and blood, but –as evidenced in the first words the risen Jesus speaks to those disciples who themselves rejected and betrayed him – in peace. Shalom.
We did not arrive here by accident. But we can change we go. We can let go of our blood-centred theologies and carry the cross that Jesus asked his followers to carry: the gospel of peace. The sacrifice of forgiveness. Imagine what a world would look like if our actions were rooted in love, not in retribution or fear. Imagine a place where serving one another out of love and respect, as fellow children of grace, took precedence over morality codes and blood sacrifice. Imagine a God that looks more like Jesus than Molech. We can end up there. That’s the gospel. But we need to choose, a little more wisely, the object of our faith: Jesus or the Bible.